Wishful Shrinking: A Modern Freak Show

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Mixed Messages: from the Thinstagram Project

The “freak” is a social construct: an individual that does not adhere to society’s standards of the “normal.” In other words, freaks defy the social norms that the dominant structures of society fight to maintain, and that the majority conforms to meet. Defining the freak can only be achieved by defining difference, which is always going to change based on the needs of a culture at a particular time.

A year ago, I was a freak.

As I walked to class down Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania, ran my legs miles and miles into the ground, and entered buildings, elevators, and stores, heads would turn and stare. Everywhere I went, people stared at me, or at least, held their gaze for a lot longer than felt comfortable for me. I used to wipe my face, thinking maybe my pen had leaked on to my cheek; I used to tug at my clothes, wondering if some part of my body was being inappropriately exposed; and I used to whip back and forth, checking if my backpack had been left open. At the time, I didn’t see what they were staring at. But now, looking back, I totally get it.

I developed anorexia in my sophomore year of college. I grew severely ill. I only realized that I had a problem when my mental strength, and my motivation to live, fell to the wayside. But on the outside, my hipbones jutted out, my stomach was concave, and my legs looked like they might snap in two. Supposedly belonging to a 21-year-old woman, my body resembled more, and weighed less than that of a pre-pubescent boy. Despite the worried and strange glances, and the few family members that told me I was “too” thin, I found out later that some of my peers had been talking behind my back, not expressing their concern as much as they were curiously observing my unusual-looking body. I even had some people come up to me marveling at how thin I was, and saying they wished they could look like that. I received everything from “How are you so skinny? What’s your secret?” to “You’re so lucky, YOU can eat dessert. I can’t, but YOU can!” to “Riya, please gain some weight.” In every situation, I rolled my eyes and thought, “If they only knew…” And it is precisely here where the problem lies.

When it comes to the freaky thin body, the show can go two ways.

There’s the thin freak, who is really more of a wonder, a miracle. She’s a model. Her body’s proportions are not “normal,” they’re better. The media splashes her across billboards, and commercials, television shows and magazine covers. The fashion industry publicizes and sells its clothes by way of displaying and selling these bodies. The subliminal message is, “Buy this dress, and you’ll look like her.” Society wants to look like her. The media shows her to you because she’s different from most people, but it’s the different you want to be like. The difference that is normal to want. The one you want to be, but will never be, because she is born that way. Models are the positive aberrants; the super-thin, supernormal; the better side of the deviation of a normal curve of body size. The good, desirable kind of very thin.

Then there’s the freaky, bad, undesirable kind. The sick kind. The one you look at, and can’t believe you are still looking at it because it is disgusting and ghastly and you want to turn away but you keep looking. You can’t believe someone would do that to their body. Make themselves that way on purpose. It is inhuman. To deprive yourself of food? To let your body waste away to the point of emaciation? It is sinful! Only a true freak would do that. You don’t want to look at it in magazines. You don’t aspire to look like that or do that to yourself. You would never let your diet go that far.

But what if I told you, that the freak that society perceives as good, and the one it considers bad, oftentimes look very much the same on the outside? Okay. What if I told you that the good kind of freak chooses to look that way, but the bad kind doesn’t have a choice? That the good freak was made that way by the powerful forces of society, but the bad kind were being forced, by the very brains they were born with? What if I told you society often mixes up the two, and believes that the first kind causes the second? Would you be confused? Would you think it was fair? Who would you listen to?

Models get super-human status, while people with anorexia get “not-a-real-human” status. Models go on private jets, grace runways and private parties, and live life glamorously in the public eye — or so it would seem. Sometimes, they get called anorexic, but no one bats an eyelash. They just say, “Oh, well sure, that makes sense.” We, the freaks with anorexia, live our lives in isolated and misery, we don’t want anyone to see us, and then, we get put in hospital (or become a “one in five die” statistic). Student Health Services informed me in the most patronizing, infantilizing manner, that I needed to leave school and go to an inpatient center for eating disorders because my heart was about to fail. To put it in their words, I had an “abnormally low heart rate.” I was told it would be best for me if I came back to school when I was “fixed” and healthy again. It felt like because I was so abnormal, they needed to ship me off to a place to be with other similar freaks because they didn’t want me posing a threat to this elite academic institution’s reputation.

But because of societal norms that dictate women (and men) should constantly strive to be thinner and fitter, people were still getting the idea that I looked “okay, even ideal. Society glamorizes the idea of anorexia, imagining it as a way to be thinner and emulate them, the models, good freaks. About us, however, they think, “those girls just got carried away with trying to have the perfect bodies.”

Contrary to popular belief, I did not “get” anorexia from wanting to look like a super-skinny model. I actually did not even look at images of models, and in general, I did not feel I needed or wanted to look like them. If anything, I subconsciously wanted to become way smaller, and disappear entirely. Asking “why” I developed anorexia would be like asking an alcoholic “why” they drink, in the sense that the reasons are complicated, multiple, and rooted in many more biological and environmental factors, often from childhood, than could ever be fully analyzed for both these, and many other addictions. To an addict, starving is disguised as a moral and virtuous behavior ­­– it is not developed with an intent to look, as much as a need to be or feel a certain way.

Having anorexia is far from a glamorous life. At my inpatient treatment center, although it was a warm, comfortable place, we, the fourteen resident “freaks” with eating disorders were subject to a set of strict rules that were established so that we would achieve the “ultimate” goal: behaving and looking like normal human beings again. Remember, anorexia is classified as an eating disorder. The concept of abnormality is literally built right into the medical term; in other words, aside from looking different (specifically in the case of anorexia), an eating disorder’s symptoms are not following the “normal” order, or way, of eating.

When I went to the bathroom, an associate had to unlock the door for me and stand outside the partially open door while I went, which made me feel a little more like a dog being taken for a walk than a human being. I had to earn my right to “privileges,” such as salting or peppering my own food, and having access to my razor, by being a well-behaved participant in the program, which meant showing real effort at recovery; or in other words, behaving more and more normal.

One Sunday — my first weekend in treatment, we took a field trip to a historic castle, (it was really just a tiny mansion painted with a marble effect) in the area. As I was walking with two of the other new girls toward the entrance, an older man looked at us out of the window of his car and yelled, “Hey! Why don’t you girls eat something?” I had never felt more self-conscious and ashamed of my physical appearance, especially my physical difference. We three girls — numb, zombie shells of human beings — were shaken, gobsmacked, and brought to tears.

Of course, society’s curiosity and fascination with looking at people whose body sizes lay on the extremities of the normal curve is nothing new. Freak Shows of the 19th century featured the “Living Skeleton,” as well as the “Fat Lady.” And in other contexts, being thin is viewed as equally freakish, but perhaps for completely different reasons, such as not being a marriage-worthy bride with a curvaceous figure indicating strong maternal, childbearing potential, in some South Asian and African cultures.

As with the Freak Show performers and the 19th century public entertainment industry, today, models are just pawns in the media’s game to remain dominant and powerful. In this capitalist, consumerist society, power means money. And models make money. They sell products, they sell lifestyles, and they sell themselves. The media industry cashes in big — all they need to do is display these skinny bodies, pay them and give them incentivizing perks, and voila! It’s a win-win situation. But not everyone wins.

The media is not the cause, as it is so often incorrectly assumed, of eating disorders like anorexia. But, in promoting the idea that skinny is the only normal kind of beautiful; giving you the magical exercise and diet regimens to get there; and only showing you models with thin bodies setting all the latest trends, the media encourages you, society, to consume the thin ideal, and subsequently normalize attitudes towards:

a) The desire to have a thin body, which goes hand in hand with making people critical of their own bodies, and buying into exercise programs, diets and cleanses that promise to teach them how to lose weight, look better, and/or gain the same “self-control” and discipline as the glamorous models are perceived to possess (how else would they maintain those figures??)

b) The appearance of our sick, skinny freak bodies that are possessed by anorexia, by implying that we simply want to be beautiful and thin, just like everyone else. The worst part of all is that as a result, it becomes difficult to for others to see that we are suffering, both physically and mentally, and desperately need help. What was supposed to act as our body’s primary mode of visually communicating our inner, mental turmoil on our exterior became the normal thing to try and aspire to look like. As with the child born with Down syndrome, whose parents thought it would be beneficial for her to undergo surgery so she could appear to be a “normal” child, how is society supposed to know that she needs special care for her condition, given that she looks “normal” on the outside? Only until our behavior or bodies become extremely freakishly thin are we recognized as medical problems that need to be fixed; otherwise, we’re just trying to be thinner and have a better body and thus a better, happier life (duh!). However, even after discovery by the professionals, we are not treated like humans. Instead, we are removed from normal society and put into hospitals or treatment centers, with other freaks like us, where we are disciplined and trained to behave like “normal humans,” while our bodies are restored to “normal human” weights by medical experts who know what a “normal human” body should look like; or at least, so they say.

Context is key to defining the freak, and freakery exists at the level of the body. And in this case, I am referring to one type of body, but two kinds of freaks, who embody very different meanings. The issue is that they often get entangled, when they really need to be seen as two very separate bodies, freakish or not. Looking thin and beautiful is what puts the model on display. It is what sustains her livelihood. Even if she is starving herself, the innate reasons contributing to this behavior are what matter and determine the difference being a thin person vs. a thin person with anorexia. These might include a glamorous lifestyle of fame, fortune and fashion; or, the absolute need to take up as little space as possible, to give herself less than she actually needs to survive, to disappear, because her sense of self-worth has been hi-jacked by an inner demon, who tells her she doesn’t deserve food or anything else that will make her happy.

In 2015, France passed a bill banning models under a certain BMI from being publicly displayed in fashion shows and images, with the goal of “cracking down” on anorexia. Stories like this are popular in the media; ultimately, the news source still gets to run images of “freaky-thin” models that garner them much attention — but now they are instead portrayed as the abnormal that is associated with undesirable, contaminating, and detrimental effects on society.

On one hand, I understand France’s ban on images of “too-thin” models that are otherwise given access to the power to normalize the standard for what a body should strive to look like, which is problematic. Anorexia is a competitive illness. Comparison — to how we looked yesterday, to ourselves 10 years ago, to that mannequin, to our moms, to the branch on that tree and yes, even images of models and fitness gurus on Instagram — is part of the disease, in our attempt to claim the position of the lowest weight (an unattainable goal, that sets us up to fail, and continue punishing ourselves for not being restrictive enough on ourselves). In this way, the presence of models and anorexia can be correlated, but they do not have a causal relationship.

However, I believe publicizing the ban in this way worsens society’s misunderstanding of the true causes of anorexia. By punishing modeling agencies that hire models that are “too thin” in the name of “combatting” anorexia, France’s lawmakers conflate the two very different types of humans merely because they have similar sized bodies. This only serves to strengthen the completely incorrect, but unfortunately commonly perceived stereotype that anorexia is just an obsession with wanting to look like a beautiful, thin model. It trivializes the severity of the illness and worse, normalizes it as something everyone does. Furthermore, as a result, those who are suffering from anorexia feel like they have to really look different, and be even more freakishly thin than any of the models out there, so they will be acknowledged as legitimately sick, rather than just another superficial girl obsessed with her appearance.

After months of therapy and self-analysis, I became aware that my physical body had been communicating my inner mental state of torment. I was trying to show that I was not okay. I was not aiming to be attractive, and I certainly did not want my body to invite attention or be construed as “sexy.” When bodies are automatically assumed to a look a certain way for only one reason, important messages don’t get sent.

Society needs education. It needs to become aware of the differences between thinness as a symptom of societal norms, vs. a symptom of the deadliest mental illness. The public needs to learn how to recognize when there is a real problem. I know that for me personally, the biggest obstacle to opening up and telling people about my illness was my own shame and fear of being judged for just wanting to be thinner and better looking, when that wasn’t the case. People are not going to be able to achieve this understanding if they continue to receive mixed messages.

By the way, I’m still a freak. In our society, the “normal” thing is to want to lose weight, to complain about your body, to want to make it better by making it thinner, and so on. You know the drill. But as an individual in recovery from anorexia, I have to constantly remind myself to do the opposite of the norm. It is not easy, as I feel like an outsider, and I get anxious when I hear others talking about how they need to lose weight or eat healthier because I feel like I should be doing that too, but I shouldn’t. I’ve been specifically told that I can’t. Of course, now, I look normal, so people can’t see that I am struggling, or feeling uncomfortable in a situation. In other words, I still feel like a freak, but I don’t resemble the one I used to any longer. Sometimes, I can’t eat like a “normal” person, because my mind goes into hyperdrive about choices and timings and balances, and I must sift through so many other useless, distressing thoughts that “normal people” do not experience. I so badly want to be like them.

But then again, is there such a thing as a “normal” relationship with food? Until the context changes, if society continues to follow the media’s current depiction of a normal, healthy lifestyle, perhaps I would still pick being the freak. It means eating what I want, as opposed to what the dominant media, whose messages often echo the demonic voice of my eating disorder, says I should; and thinking in ways that serve me well — even if they differ from the norm.

Maybe being a freak will not be so bad after all.

— please do not continue reading if you feel uncomfortable viewing graphic images —

The Thinstagram Project

My goal was to use defamiliarization to make you realize that what you see in an image may not be the reality. I created two sets of Instagram posts: one represents the fact that because we so often encounter images of the “good” thin body promoting fitness trends, “clean eating” tips and diets, and of course, products and clothes (or a lack thereof), on Instagram and other visual media, we can often pass by people who are sick and not realize they desperately need help. For these, I placed captions from various popular models or fitness-inspiration (“fitspo”) Instagram pages with pictures of myself from when I was in the depths of my illness. Just like the body depicted in them, these pictures try to communicate that if you look again, you will see that there is something wrong. But at first glance, they are saying that they are absolutely fine.

The other set aims to communicate the inner distress that we sufferers of anorexia experience, but does not get communicated by our bodies because they are considered to be simply striving toward thinness, as normal. For these, I wrote captions that expressed the voice of my eating disorder in my mind that dictated my life, telling me I needed to do more and be more and why I needed to punish and discipline myself; whilst the pictures reflect the “normal” images of models’ bodies I was perceived from the outside to be striving towards attaining. It should be noted that with these pictures, I am not trying to claim that all models have anorexia — I have already mentioned how this is very likely not true.

Overall, I wanted to express that if the media did not attach messages related to glamor and beauty to “freaky” thin bodies, society’s perceptions of eating disorders as a “normal” occurrence might be different, and help move towards giving people that are ill the proper empathy, support and help that they need.


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